Decisions, decisions, decisions!

We make hundreds of decisions every single day. From big decisions, such as major projects and purchases, to much smaller decisions about what route to take to work and what to eat for lunch. These decisions, no matter how big or small, all add up though and can ultimately have more of an impact than you might expect.

Some of us are really great at making quick decisions, whereas others need more time to consider all the options. There is no right or wrong way – some decisions absolutely need a little more time and consideration than others. Recently my family faced the incredibly important decision of which Christmas Tree to pick out at our local tree farm. My husband went with the first tree he saw when we walked into the farm, but I needed to take the time to look around all our options before settling on (you guessed it) the same first tree that he picked out initially. In my defense, walking around weighing up the merits of different trees is all part of the process and we would all be a little disappointed if we made our decision in less than 2 minutes (well nearly all). 

I know for myself I put a lot of thought into decisions and these seem to take a toll. I am often able to make really good decisions typically in the morning, but by the end of the day it is a struggle. I know I am not alone in the fact that my decisions about what to eat early on in the day are incredibly healthy, but by  evening, I am inhaling bags of Potato Chips and Sour Patch Kids (why are they so delicious????) It often seems that as the day goes on, our ability to focus and make sound decisions decreases, and there’s a good reason for that – it does. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘Decision Fatigue’.

The term Decision Fatigue was coined by Baumeister and it refers to the decline in the quality of decisions that are made after many decisions have been made in a row. In other words, the more decisions you need to make, the worse you’re going to be at weighing all the options and making an educated choice.

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain. Eventually we look for shortcuts and these typically fall into two extremely different responses. One shortcut is to become reckless: to react impulsively instead of taking the time and focus to think through the consequences of decisions (sure, post that comment or picture on Facebook! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of trying to figure out what is the right direction to take, people often simply avoid any choice. Avoiding decisions eases the mental strain, but it also means that any potential change is often resisted. 

A classic demonstration of the result of avoiding decisions is a famous  study of more than 1,100 parole hearing decisions made by judges. What they discovered was that the most influential factor in whether or not someone was granted parole wasn’t the crime, background, or sentence, but what time their case was heard. “Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.” (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011).

Research also discovered that there was a spike in granting parole immediately after a lunch break, but generally speaking as the day went on, the judge became less likely to make a decision and so they stick with the safer choice and the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

No matter how rational and focused you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It turns out that even the most inconsequential decisions contribute to our overall decision fatigue. Twenge and Baumeister found that when one group made a series of shopping decisions, compared to another group that just considered choices, they had a significant decrease in willpower and decrease in decision making skills. This is significant because more and more our careers depend on making good choices. By understanding decision fatigue and how we can counter it, we can make sure we’re operating at our most effective all day long and we are not falling prey to decision fatigue.

So, what does this all mean when considering the effects of decision fatigue in your life? Well for starters if you ever get yourself in legal trouble then try to see the parole board bright and early in the morning!! At work though, this awareness can have significance in how you combat your own decision fatigue and how you adjust for other peoples. For example, if you are trying to get your boss to take a risk on a new creative project then you probably want to schedule a morning meeting to discuss the issue. Research shows you’ll have a significantly better chance of them considering it and seeing the benefits as well as the risks. For yourself though, you can try to do more of the analytical type of work earlier in the day, but we often don’t have this luxury and things definitely pop up.

Here are some strategies I use to combat Decision Fatigue:

Empower others to make as many decisions as possible. This may seem obvious and probably a little inconsequential, but there are many benefits to this. Those working for you will be able to be more autonomous and have more authority to complete their work. There is nothing worse than having to ask permission for everything or run every decision by someone. Trusting others to make decisions empowers people, builds confidence and increases job satisfaction. There are a few important considerations though – you need to explicitly let people know what decisions need to come to you (e.g. decisions that involve over a certain amount of money or have specific potential risks) and which ones they are fine to make independently. Teach others the process you take in making decisions, give parameters and explain your thinking. When people come to you with a decision don’t just give them the answer, encourage them to problem solve it by asking questions, having them process it with you and finally coming up with their own solutions. It is often a lot quicker and easier to just give the decision, but ultimately it won’t serve you or those who work for you well.

Cut down on the number of everyday ‘non-important’ decisions.  I tend to have a lot of structure and routine in my day that cuts down on what I view as inconsequential decisions. These, however, are going to be very different for each person and what I see as not important could definitely be incredibly important to someone else. For me, reducing routine decisions frees up time and mental energy, so it is very valuable. For example, I thought I was being ground-breaking when I returned to work from maternity leave and realized that wearing dresses to work was a huge time-saver. I didn’t need to match anything or put an outfit together because one item was the whole outfit. Dresses have now become my work ‘uniform’ because they are so easy for me (I also pick out everything I am wearing to work on a Sunday so there is no thought required each morning). It turns out though that some pretty well known people already discovered the value in not overthinking their clothing – people such as Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg have been known to reduce their everyday clothing down to one or two outfits in order to limit the number of decisions they make in a day. I am not advocating that we all start wearing black turtlenecks as our staple wardrobe, but just that you identify those frequent things that take up mental energy and time. For me the biggest opportunities are what I wear to work and what I eat for lunch, but for others I am sure these are decisions they enjoy making every day and so they don’t want to lose the options here. 

Be aware of changes in decision making. If possible, structure your day to maximize effective decision making. For many people, this means whenever possible making important decisions first thing in the morning. If you can tell you are feeling ineffective in decision making then resist the temptation to knee-jerk a response or just say no. Instead, ask people to wait on a decision to let you think about it. A little time may help you see the different sides and oftentimes coming back to the issue the next day is the best option. It is also important to realize that decision making is impacted when we do not eat – I am a bit of a stickler about making sure that I never miss lunch and it turns out this is a good thing for decisions too; not taking breaks and not eating regularly further impacts our ability for effective decision making. 

Set aside time to make the fun decisions. Often it is the ‘fun’ decisions that suffer as a result of decision fatigue. Generally speaking,  our decisions about non-work activities happen after work and sometimes the temptation then is just to say no to ourselves. If this is something that seems familiar to you then I would try to prioritize time on the weekends to plan vacations or other activities. All the fun opportunities should not get neglected because we are too mentally exhausted to think about it.

Remember,  at the end of the day while we need to combat decision fatigue, being able to make decisions is a pretty great problem to have. A far worse issue would be a lack of choice and control. 

In the words of Baumeister “Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

Do you see the quality of your decisions changing over the course of the day?

What ways do you try to cut down on the everyday decisions?

How do you empower others on your team to be able to make autonomous decisions?

Most importantly, isn’t walking around assessing all the possible Christmas Trees an important part of the whole experience?

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